AN ATHEIST'S VALUES
2.86. The ethics of the synoptic gospels
What are Christian ethics? Many people talk as if we all knew perfectly well what they are, and the only trouble were that some of us wickedly refuse to obey them. But it seems to me that what Christian ethics are is obscure and confused and uncertain.
The cause, which makes people confident that they know what Christian ethics are, is often that they assume that they can tell them by intuition. They have only to use their intuition, which when it deals with moral questions is called conscience, and the rules of Christian morality are known to them.
All that a man can find out by intuition is what he himself considers to be the right moral laws. He cannot find out what anybody else thinks right without studying the utterances or other acts of that person. The question what Christian ethics are, however, is an historical question. It is the historical question what rules are or were recommended by the Christians. Any responsible answer to it must proceed by historical method, by ascertaining and studying the texts uttered by the Christians.
Who are the Christians? There have been Christians for nearly 2,000 years, and thousands of them have published statements claiming authority on Christian doctrine. One could hardly read them all; but it takes little reading to discover that they do not altogether agree with each other. When they disagree, which has the better right to the title 'Christian'?
The word 'Christian' is made from a title, 'Christ', given to Jesus of Nazareth. It therefore seems that the writings closest to Jesus have the best claim to be the authority on Christian doctrine. Therefore the New Testament has a better claim than any subsequent writing by fathers or bishops or doctors or theologians or popes. Within the New Testament itself we can distinguish changes or at least additions of doctrine. There is a great deal in the epistles that is not in the gospels. There is a great deal in John's gospel that is not in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. There is a great deal in Matthew that is not in Mark. On the whole, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, stand together against John, and are much closer to each other than any of them is to John. For this reason it is often convenient to refer to the three of them together as 'the synoptics'. The synoptic gospels, then, seem to have the best title of any book to give the Christian ethics.
If, then, we wish to answer the question What are Christian ethics?, the first thing to do is to read the synoptic gospels and try to interpret them correctly.
The interpretation of a book written far away and long ago is always very liable to error. The interpretation of the synoptic gospels suffers from two additional and unusual sources of error. The first of these is that an overwhelming host of other interpreters has gone before us, and their results are ringing in our ears, and many of their results are more familiar to us than the words of the gospels themselves. The second is that we have been given an immensely strong bias to believe that whatever is affirmed in these gospels is rightly affirmed, and hence we have a perverting tendency to read into them whatever we personally think to be the true values and to read out of them any false values they may at first appear to us to preach.
Even the most learned and responsible interpreters make this second mistake, and misinterpret a passage through the conviction that it cannot really be intended to recommend something which the interpreter is sure is disapprovable. Thus Dr. Lonsdale Ragg says of the passage on the ravens which neither sow nor reap, &c. (Luke xii. 22 ff. Commentary on Saint Luke, London, 1922, p. 181), that it 'cannot really be intended as a counsel of improvidence. It is rather a warning against that over-reliance upon dividends, and that degeneration of thrift into grasping greed which are characteristic of our time.' Dr. Ragg gives no reason for his statement that this passage cannot be what it seems to be, a recommendation of improvidence and a rejection of thrift. But it is obvious what reason he had in mind: he was saying to himself: 'Improvidence is bad, and Jesus never recommended anything bad; therefore he never recommended improvidence; therefore this passage is not really a recommendation of improvidence though it seems to be.'
Yet, when you come to think of it, the principle that 'Jesus never recommended anything which we think bad' is one that would make it rather useless to read the gospels. In interpreting them so that they always agreed with our valuations, we should be teaching Jesus rather than learning from him. In any case, it is a principle that is most unlikely to be true, and therefore most unlikely to guide us aright in interpreting the gospels; for the fluidity of human affairs, and the huge difference between our society and heritage and those of Jesus, make it extremely unlikely that all our valuations would be the same as his. If we suspect that a passage in the gospels does not mean what it appears to mean, then the test to apply to it, or rather the background against which to examine it, is not the valuations of the twentieth century but the rest of the gospels. The best way of deciding the meaning of any passage in the synoptic gospels is to look at it against the background of those gospels as a whole.
To interpret the gospels correctly you must read them with what may be called interpreter's piety, that is, the will to receive into your mind the exact meaning the author intended, however strange or repellent or boring it may turn out to be. I urge you to do this, or at least not to use the phrase 'Christian values' until you have done it. I do not mean to say that it will never help to study Palestinian history, or that you need never ask a learned scholar the meaning of some peculiar phrase. I mean that the chief thing you need to do is to read the gospels for yourself, in the original Greek if you know Greek, with the open mind of the pious interpreter, and try to see for yourself what they say.
I will now describe the ethical teaching of the synoptic gospels as it appeared to me the last time I studied it. After that, I will ask to what extent this teaching should be accepted.
These writings are by no means wholly, or even primarily, concerned with ethical teaching, that is, with telling us what things are good and what acts should be done. As one learned and responsible exponent has put it, namely T. W. Manson in his book The Teaching of Jesus, pp. 185-6, 'the "ethics of Jesus", in the sense in which ... many ... think of them, do not exist, and never have existed'. He explains that this is because 'the moral teaching of Jesus is part and parcel of his religion and is not separable from it except by violence'. What the synoptics are mainly concerned to do is to tell a story, the story of the wonderful life, death, and resurrection, of Jesus of Nazareth. Each of them is in form a biography rather than a collection of commandments and valuations. In each of them, and especially in Mark, Jesus is primarily not a teacher or moralist but a mysterious and miraculous divine leader.
However, this divine leader occupies himself largely with ethical teaching, especially according to Matthew; and we can give some general account of the nature of this teaching.
In the first place, it is quite unsystematic. There is nothing like a treatise. There is hardly even a methodical list like the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The teaching appears to consist of many separate and independent sayings. Unities like Matthew's Sermon on the Mount appear to be conflations by the writer, not original and connected discourses by Jesus. In one saying Jesus says which is the greatest commandment and which is the second greatest (Matt. xxii. 37 ff.); there is no other mention of the question how all these precepts and valuations are to be co-ordinated.
In the second place, a great deal of the teaching is vague, puzzling, or obscure. Much of it consists of fascinating but mysterious stories whose point is doubtful, such as that of the wise and foolish virgins. One does not know what to make of sentences like: 'The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.' Many even of the direct exhortations are very uncertain in meaning. For example, 'blessed are the pure in heart'; what is purity in heart? Is it virtue in general or is it a special virtue? In many cases little can be done to elucidate an obscure saying by comparing other parts of the texts, owing to their fragmentary or atomic character. Sometimes, however, light can be brought by scholars who are familiar with other Jewish writings. In this way, for example, it can be made probable that 'give not that which is holy unto the dogs' means 'do not tell my gospel to anyone who is not a Jew'.
The teaching includes both very general precepts on which great emphasis is laid, and discussions of middling matters including divorce, and some small change of moral advice, such as 'if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone'.
The teaching is paradoxical and intended to be so. The writers represent Jesus as one who repeatedly uttered statements, valuations, and commands, that seemed to most people odd or shocking. He is given to sayings like 'the last shall be first, and the first last', and 'whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant'. Though in one saying he condemns making a scandal (Matt. xviii. 6 ff.), yet in another he implies that his own preaching makes scandal (Matt. xiii. 21); and Matthew often speaks of people being scandalized by him. Most people are in fact scandalized by the saying that 'whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath'.
The teaching has a prominent strain of harshness in it. Jesus threatens weeping and gnashing of teeth. He threatens great misery to those who do not receive his missionaries (Mark vi. 11). He threatens damnation to those who do not believe in his gospel (Mark xvi. 16), and to those who blaspheme against the Holy Ghost (Mark iii. 29). He is remarkably abusive (cf. Matt. xi. 20), especially towards the Pharisees, with whom he at least once engages in cleversilly argument (Matt. xxii. 15-22). He harshly neglects his family relations for his gospel (Matt. xii. 46 ff.). He expects his gospel to result in parricide and in the betrayal of brothers and children to death (Matt. x, especially verse 21). He withers a fig tree and destroys a herd of swine. Matthew Arnold seems to me far from the truth when he finds 'sweet reasonableness' in Jesus. There are a few 'sweet and comfortable sayings'; but the prevailing atmosphere is harsh. One of his most judicious twentieth-century followers, Professor T. W. Manson (The Sayings of Jesus, p. 75), acknowledges 'the seeming harshness of Jesus and His almost brutal thrusting into the background of natural feelings and obligations', but puts it down to 'the overwhelming urgency of His task'.
So much for the general character of the sayings; and now for the five main commandments which I find.
(1) According to Matthew the first words of the preaching both of John the Baptist and of Jesus were: 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Later Matthew says that Jesus said: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.' Devotion to God, or piety, stands out as Jesus' main precept. It appears in two different forms, love and righteousness. On the one hand, we are to love God. On the other, we are to repent and be righteous.
This first precept appears to be absolute in Jesus' mind. No other precept or interest may in any circumstance override it. He demands its fulfilment no matter what the damage to all other interests, and he expects the damage to other interests to be very great. Among these consequent damages may be strife, the sword, and the denial of family claims. Devotion to God will involve the keen disapproval of others: 'blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.' It will involve poverty: 'ye cannot serve God and mammon'; 'blessed be ye poor, for your's is the kingdom of God'. Jesus is against all prudent provision of material goods to avoid poverty and provide for the future. That would interfere with devotion to God, and is unnecessary because the kingdom of God is at hand. He frequently and consistently recommends improvidence and taking no thought for the morrow. 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.' Imitate instead the fowls of the air, which neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. Sell everything you have and follow me (Luke xviii. 22). Give to everyone who asks you (Luke vi. 30). He is against attempting to make ourselves materially secure; and he gives the impression of never having had the thought that, if we all followed his advice, everybody would soon be permanently poorer. His famous story of the Prodigal Son is the story of a waster who got on as well as or better than his careful and responsible brother; and he has several other stories to urge the same moral, that the laborious preserver of material goods neither gets nor deserves more reward than his opposite. As a complete substitute for thrift and prudence he recommends prayer and faith. 'Ask, and it shall be given to you.'
(2) Closely related to this first precept, but distinguishable therefrom, comes what appears to be Jesus' second command: 'Believe in me.' Jesus is represented by the evangelists as constantly demanding faith in himself and declaring it a sin not to believe in him.
The expression 'believe in me' seems obscure. Sometimes Jesus merely says 'believe' or 'have faith', expressions which are more obscure. The naïve reader today feels inclined to ask: 'Believe what precisely?' The answer is not 'believe that I can do miracles', for the evangelists assume that everybody who had heard of Jesus already believed that. The answer, if it is given at all, is given in a few obscure phrases such as 'that Jesus is the anointed' or that 'he is the son of man' or that 'he is the son of God'. But Jesus is represented as noticeably unwilling to utter such phrases himself. He tries to get others to utter them without uttering them himself.
The notion of faith later to become a characteristic and prominent Christian virtue, appears in the gospels mainly in connexion with this precept, 'believe in me'.
This precept is probably much the most novel of Jesus' precepts. Learned commentators show anticipations by other rabbis of most of Jesus' other rules; but naturally there are no anticipations of the rule that we should believe in Jesus.
(3) Jesus' third precept is the love of man. 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' He numbers it as second in importance; for he does not reckon his 'believe in me' when the question is what the commandments are. He regards the command to love the neighbour not as his own invention but as one of the established commandments. It does in fact occur in Lev. xix. 18. But he regards himself as extending it by adding: 'Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.' He does not say explicitly that this applies even to Gentile enemies; but his story of the Good Samaritan, told in answer to the question 'Who is my neighbour?', probably means that we should love and help every human being.
(4) He regards his extended law of love as entailing non-resistance to evil. 'To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloke withhold not thy coat also.' It entails also generosity: 'Give to everyone that asketh thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.' It entails the golden rule: 'As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.' It entails forgiveness, even for the seventy-times-seventh offence. No doubt it is the reason for the beatitudes: 'Blessed are the gentle.... Blessed are the merciful' (Matt. v. 5-7). No doubt it is the source of the few comfortable and kindly sayings ascribed to Jesus in these gospels, such as: 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest' (Matt. xi. 28).
It is difficult to see, however, what Jesus' law of love can amount to in practice in view of his overwhelming insistence on the priority of the law of piety. We cannot give material help to our neighbours because the law of piety demands improvidence and poverty. We cannot take family love very seriously because it may interfere with our devotions. Any two rules of conduct will conflict in some cases; and it seems quite clear that Jesus' first two rules must conflict very often. But, in accordance with the unsystematic character of Jesus' teaching, there is no recognition of this in the gospels. There is hardly a recognition of any possibility of conflict between any two rules; but perhaps Professor Manson is right in saying that the verse, 'There is none other commandment greater than these' (Mark xii. 31), implies that the first two commandments may clash with the rest, and declares how such a clash is to be decided (The Sayings of Jesus, p. 227).
(4) Jesus' first three precepts are, then, love God, believe in me, and love man. I know no obvious name for or summary expression of what appears to be his next most important precept. I will call it purity of heart, though this involves a mere guess as to how he himself actually used the word 'pure'. The precept is that we are to regulate our thoughts in the same ways as we are to regulate our actions, that the laws are to be maintained internally as well as externally. It is suggested at length in Matt. v. 21 ff.: 'Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill.... But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment'; and so on. It is also probably the meaning of the doctrine that 'that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man'. It is probably the cause of the critical and reserved attitude of Jesus towards the explicit rules of law and behaviour and ceremony reigning in his society and maintained by the priests. He repudiates the idea that ritual, and ritual laws, can exist for their own sake, appealing to the saying that 'I desire pity and not sacrifice'.
(5) The fifth and last of the major precepts I find in the synoptic gospels is the demand for humility. We are to tapeinoun ourselves, to humiliate or lower ourselves. This will involve preventing ourselves from feeling contempt; we are not to despise one of these little ones, which probably implies that we are not to despise anyone. It will involve not judging people. 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' It will involve avoiding displays of superiority; for example, we should do good in secret, not in public. It will involve not caring about one's prestige, and not demanding honours or recognition, though perhaps accepting them when offered. It will involve serving others, including serving them in low ways such as washing their feet. It will involve, or be, something more central than all these, something inward and mental, which Jesus does not define and I am not prepared to define, but which is suggested by this lovely story: 'Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.' (Luke xviii, 10-13).
These, then, are the five major precepts I find in the synoptic gospels: love God, believe in me, love man, be pure in heart, be humble. We may infer that the greatest virtues are piety, faith, love, purity, and humility; and that the only great goods beyond these virtues are God and Jesus.
Does Jesus offer reasons why we should adopt these precepts? In keeping with the unsystematic and gnomic character of his sayings in general, he has no elaborate argumentation in favour of them. He has, however, two brief reasons for them, which he frequently utters. One is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The other is that those who obey these precepts will be rewarded in heaven, while those who disobey will have weeping and gnashing of teeth. 'Your reward shall be great in heaven.' It is a plain matter of promises and threats.
Certain ideals that are prominent elsewhere are rather conspicuously absent from the synoptic gospels. It is important to notice these because, if they have been strongly adopted since Jesus' day, they are liable to be wrongly labelled Christian and included in the Christian values.
The ideal of beauty is wholly absent from this teaching. Beauty is entirely ignored, unless in the reference to the lilies of the field it is used to enforce the lesson of improvidence.
The ideal of truth and knowledge is wholly absent from this teaching. On the contrary, Jesus poured contempt on the professors of knowledge, and declared that the kingdom of heaven is hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed unto babes. He frequently inclined to secrecy. At the same time as he was making public demonstrations of miraculous power, he kept trying to keep it a secret that he had this power, according to frequent statements by Mark and some statements by Matthew. He has some sayings according to which his teaching is a mystification rather than a spreading of truth: 'Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them' (Mark iv. 11-12).
As Jesus never recommends knowledge, so he never recommends the virtue that seeks and leads to knowledge, namely reason. On the contrary, he regards certain beliefs as in themselves sinful (such beliefs as that 'Jesus is not the son of God'), whereas it is an essential part of the ideal of reason to hold that no belief can be morally wrong if reached in the attempt to believe truly. Jesus again and again demands faith; and by faith he means believing certain very improbable things without considering evidence or estimating probabilities; and that is contrary to reason.
The virtue of conscientiousness, of respect for the moral law, has been placed very high by many subsequent Christians, especially among the Protestants; but it is not placed high by Jesus. The mere keeping of moral commandments appears to offend Jesus rather than to please him, and he condemns it as Phariseeism.
Jesus says nothing on any social question except divorce, and all ascriptions of any political doctrine to him are false. He does not pronounce about war, capital punishment, gambling, justice, the administration of law, the distribution of goods, socialism, equality of income, equality of sex, equality of colour, equality of opportunity, tyranny, freedom, slavery, selfdetermmation, or contraception. There is nothing Christian about being for any of these things, nor about being against them, if we mean by 'Christian' what Jesus taught according to the synoptic gospels.
The Jesus of the synoptic gospels says little on the subject of sex. He is against divorce. He speaks of adultery as a vice, and perhaps includes in adultery all extramarital intercourse. The story of the woman taken in adultery, which is of a synoptic character though it appears in texts of John, preaches a humane and forgiving attitude towards sexual errors. Jesus shows no trace of that dreadful hatred of sex as such which has disfigured the subsequent history of the Christian churches, or of the disgusting idea that sexual intercourse is sinful in itself, and that, as the English prayer book has it, marriage 'was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication
2.87. Criticism of the synoptic gospels
Now I come to the attempt to judge these precepts and say which of them we should accept.
If one has been brought up in the Christian religion, it is easy to feel that there is something fundamentally wicked in judging whether to adopt these precepts. But this feeling we ought to repress. It is easy to fall into an attitude of superstitious and unquestioning awe towards the precepts in the gospels, and to adopt every one of them in automatic and thoughtless submission. But this we ought not to do. We ought to judge these precepts as we judge any other precepts or valuations, weighing their value in the light of reason and love, considering whether to adopt or reject them by asking whether they lessen human misery or do not lessen it.
As a corrective to the uncritical attitude, it is well to bear in mind that the synoptic gospels are very like folktales. Like good folktales, they are strange and beautiful and suggestive, and often embody principles that we wish to adopt. Also like good folktales, however, they often embody principles that we judge barbarous and wish to reject.
Evidently the precepts of Jesus do not provide all the values and rules we need. They do not preach the three great Greek inventions, truth, beauty, and justice, which we certainly must have. They do not recognize the inevitability of conflict between the commandments, and hence give little or no judicious guidance in cases of conflict. Evidently, also, their completely unsystematic character entitles us to pick and choose among them, accepting some and rejecting others if we so judge.
Newman said that when non-Christians read the Christian Bible 'they are much struck with the high tone of its precepts' (Sermon on John xiii. 17). That is contrary to my experience. I shall never forget the first time I read the Old Testament after I had acquired the habit of independent judgement. I was horrified at its barbarity, and bewildered that it had been widely held up as a store of ideals. It seemed to describe a savage people, fierce and brutal, no more admirable than the worse of the savage cultures that anthropologists describe to us today, and a great deal less admirable than the gentler cultures they report. The only major difference between the Old Testament, and an anthropologist's report of a rather brutal culture, seems to be that the Old Testament is written by members of the culture described, who adopt its superstitions and approve of its habits.
Nor will Newman's words fit the impression made by the synoptic gospels. They are a beautiful and fascinating piece of literature; and they preach the great precept 'love thy neighbour'. But this precept is overshadowed in them both by the harsh unloving behaviour of the preacher, and by its absolute subordination to the unreasonable commands to love God and believe in Jesus.
We should reject Jesus' first two precepts, love God and believe in me; and we should reject the values that he associates therewith, piety, faith, and improvidence. It is improbable that there is a god; but, even if it were probable that would not justify Jesus' demand for piety, because he makes his demand without reference to probability, and because he is reckless of its effects on humanity. Whether the pious man is a benefit or a terror to his fellow men depends, of course, on what he believes his god tells him to do; but it is evident that many of man's most terrible actions have been done out of piety, and that piety is responsible for our shameful wars of religion, and that concern to obey a god is less likely to diminish human misery than is concern to diminish human misery.
It is most important to reject the view that it is a sin not to believe in Jesus; for the view that a belief can be sinful is very harmful and wrong. It destroys the whole ideal of knowledge and reason, and prevents man from achieving the knowledge in which much of his dignity and much of his safety lie. No belief is as such morally wrong; but it is morally wrong to form one's beliefs in view of something other than truth and probability; and Jesus demanded this moral wrong. It is a moral wrong whose harmful and degrading effects penetrate widely and are great. It is terrible to think how many million people have, as a result of those passages in the gospels about having faith, done what probably each one of us here did in his childhood tried to hypnotize himself into some particular belief and to disregard whatever scraps of judgement he possessed. The fine things in Jesus' preaching have been and will be greatly harmed by this blasphemy against reason.
It is a typical nemesis on blasphemy against reason that through it Jesus came to exhibit in himself or ascribe to his god some of the bad qualities against which he warned humanity. While he preached humility, he weakened his effect by resisting with considerable asperity on his own divinity or semi-divinity, and demanding that everyone should believe in him. While he preached to men that they should forgive, he threatened unforgiving damnation to those who disbelieved himself or his missionaries, and represented his god as going to produce weeping and gnashing of teeth. While he preached love, he showed an unloving god. To demonstrate his miraculous power he destroyed useful living things.
We should reject also that praise of poverty and improvidence which he bases on these precepts. Human life depends on material resources, and they should not be neglected or thrown away. A proper concern for the misery of creatures involves the husbanding of our wealth.
At the same time we all know that some of Jesus' words on this matter hint at something acceptable and important, especially his 'how hardly shall a rich man enter into the kingdom of heaven'. That many rich people succumb to a frozen and hideous inhumanity, while the poor are sometimes gloriously lovingkind to each other, is clear to see among us. But what principles are there to guide us aright in this matter? It seems that we have not yet discovered them. The best that we have so far is Aristotle's doctrine that property should be private in ownership but public in use, if this is to be interpreted as saying that every owner of material goods is to act with the aim of making them as widely used and enjoyed as possible. He is to fence off his snakeflowers, for example, because otherwise they would all be eradicated in a few years; but he is to take all means he can of letting as many persons as possible enjoy them without destroying them.
We should accept the precept to love our neighbours, extended as Jesus perhaps extended it to love of all humanity, and still further to love of all life, as he certainly did not extend it. And if we reject his precepts to love god and believe in himself, this precept to love man will be able to amount to something and deeply affect our lives. We should accept most of the consequential attitudes that he indicates, generosity, gentleness, mercy, and the observance of the golden rule.
Forgiveness is also to be accepted. But there seems to be something injudicious in his 'seventy times seven', and something still more injudicious in his doctrine of non-resistance. Invariable non-resistance certainly does harm to the world that could be avoided by resistance on occasion. It is no contribution to human happiness always to yield to bullies, but very much the reverse. It is true, however, that many people resist too often.
As to the fourth precept, that we are to regulate our thoughts in the same ways as we are to regulate our actions, it seems to condemn imagination. In imagination, in painting and sculpture, and most of all in fiction, we enjoy the imaginative contemplation of acts that we ought not to do. There is a great and permanent and rather evenly balanced difference of valuation here, half the world approving and the other half disapproving of the contemplation of evil in imagination and art. I am among the approvers, because I find in this activity great interest and happiness, and because I believe that it discourages more than it encourages the performance of wrong acts. I believe that wrong acts are done much more by the unimaginative than by the imaginative, and much more by those who have not contemplated wrong acts in fiction than by those who have. I therefore do not much care to adopt and recommend this precept. However, some writing, and some thinking, are precisely a creation of the intention to do something wrong, and these must be wrong if the thing to be done is wrong. If we understand the precept as directed against this it seems trivial; while if we understand it as against imagination it seems bad.
There is a third way in which we might understand this precept, namely as an injunction not to encourage dangerous emotions or desires, such as anger with one's brother and sexual desire for a forbidden person. And this is the most favourable way to interpret it. It is certainly a distinct interpretation from the first, for imagination and emotion are not the same thing and need not go together.
The fifth and last precept was that of humility. The words 'humility', 'pride', and 'vanity', indicate a complicated and mysterious set of questions about human nature and the evaluation thereof. Though I have thought about this mysterious complex for years, I have not yet reached views on it in which I can rest. Only the following points seem clear to me.
First, it seems undesirable either to lie about one's own value or to be mistaken about it, and this seems to be so whether the false statement overestimates or underestimates one's value. The only good estimate of one's value to have, or to utter, is, surely, the true estimate. The value of humility cannot override the value of truth.
Secondly, it seems clear that we should act according to our actual superiorities and inferiorities. The superior man in a group should lead the group and not hang back. The less informed man in a group should hang back and not offer to inform the company.
Thirdly, it is clear that we often have a choice, between uttering and not uttering remarks about our own value and superiority or inferiority, and between calling attention to our value and not doing so. That being so, the right choice will usually be to refrain from drawing attention either to our superiorities or to our inferiorities. The main criterion of good conversation is what will please others; and the boaster and the selfdepreciator are both unpleasing. But where the conversation has an ulterior purpose, such as the appointment of an officer, these considerations are overridden.
Fourthly, to insist on the recognition of one's superiorities by others, as Aristotle's megalopsychic man so remarkably does, is rarely good, though occasionally it is required. It is not a common vice nowadays. The virtue of modesty is in fashion. Not that the vice of pride has disappeared. It is flourishing mightily in the place where it has hidden itself, namely in politics. Though most people are modest about themselves, nearly everybody insists far too much on the excellence and prestige and honour and glory of his own State, and almost nobody ever recommends his own State to behave humbly, or talks humbly about it.
Fifthly, we should know the true value of others as well as of ourselves; and in that sense we should reject Jesus' 'judge not'. It would be absurd to give up the lawcourts and the accusation and judgement of suspected persons. It would be absurd never to decide that an act was wrong, or an agent inclined to do wrong. 'Judge not' may serve, however, to suggest two desirable principles, first that it is easy to spend too much time in remarking other people's defects, and second that contempt is an emotion for which there is very little place in a good man's heart. Not contempt, but a certain kind of respect, is always required towards all persons, however petty their capacities and however loathsome their crimes. This respect is required towards all higher animals as well, and for the same reason, namely that they are all sufferers and have the rights which suffering gives. I would say they are all equal in this way, were it not that there are more obvious kinds of equality which are bad.
Finally, the reasons that Jesus gave for his precepts, namely his promises and threats, are quite unacceptable. They are false, since there is no heaven or hell; and anyhow they make his precepts precepts of prudence instead of precepts of morality. To obey rules because otherwise you will go to hell is prudence, not morality. The good and moral reason for a moral precept is that its reign in a society lessens misery in that society.
2.88. The human situation
The human situation is this.
Each one of us dies. He ceases to pulse or breathe or move or think. He decays and loses his identity. His mind or soul or spirit ends with the ending of his body, because it is entirely dependent on his body.
The human species too will die one day, like all species of life. One day there will be no more men. This is not quite so probable as that each individual man will die; but it is overwhelmingly probable all the same. It seems very unlikely that we could keep the race going for ever by hopping from planet to planet as each in turn cooled down. Only in times of extraordinary prosperity like the present could we ever travel to another planet at all.
We are permanently insecure. We are permanently in danger of loss, damage, misery, and death.
Our insecurity is due partly to our ignorance. There is a vast amount that we do not know, and some of it is very relevant to our survival and happiness. It is not just one important thing that we do not know. If it were, we might hope to discover that one important thing and live secure ever after. That one important thing would then deserve to be called 'the secret of the universe'. But there is no one secret of the universe. On the contrary, there are inexhaustibly many things about the universe that we need to know but do not know. There is no possibility of 'making sense of the universe', if that means discovering one truth about it which explains everything else about it and also explains itself. Our ignorance grows progressively less, at least during periods of enormous prosperity like the present time; but it cannot disappear, and must always leave us liable to unforeseen disasters.
The main cause of our insecurity is the limitedness of our power. What happens to us depends largely on forces we cannot always control. This will remain so throughout the life of our species, although our power will probably greatly increase.
There is no god to make up for the limitations of our power, to rescue us whenever the forces affecting us get beyond our control, or provide us hereafter with an incorruptible haven of absolute security. We have no superhuman father who is perfectly competent and benevolent as we perhaps once supposed our actual father to be.
What attitude ought we to take up, in view of this situation?
It would be senseless to be rebellious, since there is no god to rebel against. It would be wrong to let disappointment or terror or apathy or folly overcome us. It would be wrong to be sad or sarcastic or cynical or indignant. A. E. Housman has imagined some of the wrong attitudes very poetically for us.
|High heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation;
All thoughts to rive the heart are here, and all are vain:
Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation --
Oh why did I awake? when shall I sleep again?
Or the words he gives to Terence Hearsay:
|Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead,
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.
No; in a dark and cloudy day a book of humour is better than The Shropshire Lad; and one of the important parts of 'training for ill' is to acquire cheerfulness.
Cheerfulness is part of courage, and courage is an essential part of the right attitude. Let us not tell ourselves a comforting tale of a father in heaven because we are afraid to be alone, but bravely and cheerfully face whatever appears to be the truth.
The theist sometimes rebukes the pleasure-seeker by saying: 'We were not put here to enjoy ourselves; man has a sterner and nobler purpose than that.' The atheist's conception of man is, however, still sterner and nobler than that of the theist. According to the theist we were put here by an all-powerful and all-benevolent god who will give us eternal victory and happiness if we only obey him. According to the atheist our situation is far sterner than that. There is no one to look after us but ourselves, and we shall certainly be defeated.
As our situation is far sterner than the theist dares to think, so our possible attitude towards it is far nobler than he conceives. When we contemplate the friendless position of man in the universe, as it is right sometimes to do, our attitude should be the tragic poet's affirmation of man's ideals of behaviour. Our dignity, and our finest occupation, is to assert and maintain our own selfchosen goods as long as we can, those great goods of beauty and truth and virtue. And among the virtues it is proper to mention in this connexion above all the virtues of courage and love. There is no person in this universe to love us except ourselves; therefore let us love one another. The human race is alone; but individual men need not be alone, because we have each other. We are brothers without a father; let us all the more for that behave brotherly to each other. The finest achievement for humanity is to recognize our predicament, including our insecurity and our coming extinction, and to maintain our cheerfulness and love and decency in spite of it, to prosecute our ideals in spite of it. We have good things to contemplate and high things to do. Let us do them.
We need to create and spread symbols and procedures that will confirm our intentions without involving us in intellectual dishonesty. This need is urgent today. For we have as yet no strong ceremonies to confirm our resolves except religious ceremonies, and most of us cannot join in religious ceremonies with a good conscience. When the Titanic went down, people sang 'Nearer, my God, to thee'. When the Gloucesters were in prison in North Korea they strengthened themselves with religious ceremonies. At present we know no other way to strengthen ourselves in our most testing and tragic times. Yet this way has become dishonest. That is why it is urgent for us to create new ceremonies, through which to find strength without falsehood in these terrible situations. It is not enough to formulate honest and high ideals. We must also create the ceremonies and the atmosphere that will hold them before us at all times. I have no conception how to do this; but I believe it will be done if we try.